Ask Sahaj: My in-laws don’t approve of me. Can we ever get along?


Sahaj Kaur Kohli, creator of Brown Girl Therapy, answers questions about identity, relationships, mental health, work-life balance, family dynamics and more.

Sahaj Kaur Kohli. Photo Twitter @SahajKohli

Q: The elephant in the room is my in-laws. The disapproval has been apparent since I started dating my husband (10 years married, together 15 now) – because I did not and still do not fit in to what they think a woman should be for their son. I am mixed race, from the West Indies (Caribbean), and they are African Indians but quite traditional. I am not good enough because I drink, eat meat and do not accept their antiquated views about being a servant to them as they expect.

Over the years, I have put up boundaries for myself on what sorts of access they have to me. That’s because I do not trust them to have my best interest in mind: They have never taken the time to get to know me and accept who I am as a person. Do I continue creating boundaries that keep me sane? Or, because “they’re family,” I should try to come to some resolution? My preference has been to keep my distance and not interact as much. Any thoughts?

– Longtime in-law problems

A: Joining into a new family can certainly be a challenging experience. It is likely that your in-laws’ family unit has worked a certain way for years before you were in the picture, and it is unlikely, given how long it has been, that you will be able to change them.

What’s more, it sounds like you and your in-laws have different values and frameworks for what a wife should behave like. There appears to be a parallel process happening here: Your in-laws had an idea of what their daughter-in-law would be like, and you had an idea of what your parents in-law would be like. And now you’re both disappointed.

Clearly, finding the balance where you can maintain your sanity while engaging in a relationship with your in-laws has proved to be difficult. It sounds as if you have kept your distance out of self-preservation, and acting out of self-preservation is an indicator that you feel as though your in-laws are a threat to your needs and your sense of self.

I wonder: Have you been cutting off access to parts of you because they have been outwardly disrespectful or invalidating? There’s a difference between being disrespected by someone and feeling uncomfortable around someone. I wouldn’t want your discomfort to stop you from trying to show up authentically – and give your in-laws time and exposure to get to know and love the woman their son loves.

It might help to focus on the overlap you do share: a love of your husband/their son. You both want your husband to be in a happy and healthy marriage, and that involves you. It is perfectly acceptable to limit the availability they have to you in order to protect your sanity, but limiting and cutting off are not one and the same.

You also say you have been setting boundaries, but if the boundary isn’t communicated, then it can appear to others like a wall you’ve built up, not a bridge. Have these boundaries been communicated clearly so all parties understand their role and the consequences of certain behaviors?

I also am curious: What does coming to a resolution look like for you, especially after 10-plus years of navigating this? And what does it look like for you to take care of yourself while engaging in these relationships with your in-laws? Is there something you can do before or after the interactions with them to nourish and care for yourself?

Finally, I would encourage you to have an open and honest conversation with your husband. What does support from him look like? It may be setting expectations ahead of time about how often you see your in-laws and for how long at a time. It could also be coming to an agreement about what happens if your in-laws do say something disrespectful to you.

In the end, you don’t want to ask your husband to pick sides. But it isn’t fair to sacrifice your own need for support within the relationship, either.



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